So Many Words, So Little Time After twenty-six years, dictionary still awaits its final chapter



Or do they call it "the boondocks" where you come from? Or "cabbage patch"? "cheesequake"? "The first rusty spike to the left"?

And what about the part of town where the well-off folks live? "Nob Hill"? "Snob Hill"? "Debtors' Row"?

Do you call your morning doughnut a "sinker"? A "dunker"? A "soaker"? A "clinker"? Some people do.

If you want your tea without milk or lemon, do you take it "straight"? Or "plain"? "black"? Or "barefoot"? In Georgia, you might ask for it "raw." In Louisiana or Texas, "dry-long-so."

If someone told you the bride walked down the aisle carrying "a beautiful flowerpot," would you laugh? Or are you from those parts of Virginia and North Carolina where a "flowerpot" is a bouquet?

You didn't know all that. Frederic Cassidy and the people around him know all that, and lots more just as surprising. They're getting ready to share another chunk of what they know with the rest of us.

Rolling off the presses this spring, and into bookstores this fall: Volume II of the Dictionary of American Regional English -- DARE for short, and quite deliberately. When it's completed, DARE will tell Americans more about the words they use than they've ever known. Not the words they should use, the words they do use -- in their homes, with their neighbors, down at the store.

If everybody in the country uses the same word to mean the same thing, chances are you won't find it in DARE. The people working on DARE want words that don't run coast to coast, words that don't get taught in school, words that describe everything from your very best friend to your broken-down car.

If America is the sum of its parts, DARE is after the parts. Call it a celebration of diversity in five volumes. Or six. Or . . .

VOLUME II, D TO H, IS THE NEW ONE, TO BE PUBLISHED THIS fall by Belknap Press at Harvard University. Volume I, A to C, was published in 1985. Up on the sixth floor of Helen White Hall, on the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin, they're already hard at work on Volume III -- I to M -- expected in 1996 or so. After that, who knows? When it began, you see, the entire project was expected to take only eight or nine years. That was in 1965.

And for all this time, DARE has been led by Professor Frederic Gomes Cassidy, who brought the project to life way back when, and who fully intends to see it through to completion sometime after the year 2000. Frederic Cassidy is 83.

Frederic Gomes Cassidy, chief editor: born in Jamaica, grew up speaking both colonial English and Creole. Until he was tall enough to reach the dinner table by himself, he perched on the family's great big Webster's Dictionary. ("The words were supposed to work their way up through me by osmosis," he says with a laugh.)

Mr. Cassidy moved to Ohio when he was 11, and began teaching English at Madison at 32, in 1939. In 1951, tape recorder in hand, he returned to Jamaica as a Fulbright Research Fellow to compile what would become -- 16 years of part-time work later -- the first dictionary of Jamaican folk speech.

In the meantime, he offered to the American Dialect Society a plan for yet another, bigger, dictionary project, and found himself (not entirely to his surprise) tapped to run it. An American regional English dictionary would be a full-time job. But Mr. Cassidy knew you had to go where the words were.

Five vans, each equipped with plastic dishes, tape recorders and eager fieldworkers, fanned out across America.

There was method to their mileage. DARE scoured all 50 states to come up with 1,000 or so relatively stable communities, of varied size and type. Find us people who'd been born right there (or close by), and who hadn't been away much, the fieldworkers were told. And concentrate on older people, but otherwise find us a good mix.

"You walked into the general store," remembers Sheila Kolstad, the project's senior science editor. "You bought something. . . . You'd start a conversation, and then you'd quietly work in what you were there for. And pretty soon they'd say, 'Oh, well, you gotta talk to Mrs. So-and-So down the road here.' "

Sometimes -- not often -- they got turned down. Sometimes -- once, at least -- they got shot at. Generally, matters went more smoothly. A good thing: Ms. Kolstad and her colleagues were armed with only a questionnaire: 1,847 questions (223 of which were soon eliminated as unproductive) in 41 different categories.

The opening topics were especially non-threatening: Time. ("What do you call the time in the early morning before the sun comes into sight?") Weather. Farm Animals. Then on to other topics -- Religion and Beliefs ("On a church building, what do you call the part that sticks up high?"), Honesty and Dishonesty, Relationships Among People ("I wouldn't know him from ____________.") There was a section on Children's Games, another on Health and Disease, and so on.

The interviews often took a week to complete, and many were split among multiple "informants" -- 2,777 people in all, some 50 of them from Maryland. "I don't really know much about this," Ms. Kolstad would be told, "but my brother-in-law, now he knows!"

Everybody knew something, apparently: By the time the

questioning ended in 1970, they'd gotten 2,309,569 responses.

Up at the DARE offices, they're still working on that data. Plus other word lists, personal diaries, regional novels, jar tops, cookbooks, newspapers and the odd restaurant placemat.

It keeps them busy.

" 'MAKE A SLIP ON IT' " -- that's kind of a catchword in this organization," says associate editor Joan Hall, who's been with DARE since 1975.

The slips fill file cabinets throughout DARE's clutch of offices.

Then there are rows and rows of the completed questionnaires themselves, and in the library, shelves of books: "Songs of the Cowboys" and "Horse and Buggy Doctor," "Miss Parloa's Kitchen Companion" and "Foxfire 4," "Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect" and "The Dickson Baseball Encyclopedia."

The staff works word by word, and each of them has a piece of a letter -- the "Ju"s, the "Ma"s. In the beginning, everyone had a letter of his or her own, but eventually they consolidated their efforts, the better to complete a few letters and to keep the people with the money happy. (DARE's principal funders have ** included the U.S. Office of Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.)

Word by word, bit by bit, an entry is constructed:

The sense -- or senses -- in which the word is used. For some words, there's only one. For "dog," they've got 34 -- 20 as a noun, another 14 as a verb.

Where the word comes from.

The different ways it's pronounced.

Who uses the word? People of a particular age? Race? Community size? Education? Is the geographic pattern in the questionnaire data strong enough to call for a computer-generated map?

Examples of the word being used -- something old, something new, several in between. "We'll go anywhere for a word," says assistant editor and bibliographer Len Zwilling, and quotation sources range from those DARE questionnaires to the lid on a container of "jimmies." (Or do you call those little things topping your ice cream cone "sprinkles"? "Bugs"?)

And when all else fails, they put out queries through the newsletter of the American Dialect Society, DARE's sponsoring organization. How did "jackass cheese" get its name? What's the origin of the expression "Katy bar the door," and how widespread is it? What makes a "muck farm" different from other farms?

Finally, when an editor has gathered all the information available, and written up the most illuminating parts of it -- the entry isn't close to finished. It's then "funneled" to still other editors, who help decide: Is this really a DARE word? Are these the best quotes? Should this word be a main entry, or should it refer readers someplace else -- even someplace farther down the alphabet that won't be published for another decade or more?

Finally, finally, the entry goes to Mr. Cassidy. "Everything has to funnel through me," he says without apology. "I have to see everything. I wouldn't put my name to it unless I had done so."

When DARE started, some of the researchers thought they could finish each entry in 15 minutes.

L "This is a slow science," says Joan Hall. "It's a slow art."

IT SEEMS TO PAY OFF, IF Volume II is any indication. There'll be some 11,600 headwords, 4,975 "additional senses" and -- at last count -- 598 maps. Surprised? You're not alone.

They say it again and again at DARE: Everybody thinks his or her speech is standard -- from the "grinder" munchers along the East Coast ("hero"? "hoagie"?), to the Southerners who "dike up" in their finest clothes while their New England brethren "dickey up," to the Californians who remember "ditching school" while other kids were "playing hookey."

The biggest surprise for DARE staffers is something they didn't find: the great standardizing impact of television.

"It's a nice catchphrase, that TV is homogenizing the language," says Ms. Hall, "but it doesn't seem to be true."

Why not? Television isn't a participatory activity; you don't have to communicate with the television, so it doesn't change the way you speak. "Listening to Barbara Walters," says Ms. Hall, "doesn't make you want to sound like her."

Besides, "regional" words tend to be about everyday kinds of things; people seldom mention paper bags (or "sacks," or "pokes") on the nightly news.

But television or not, the language has changed. It was changing when DARE's interviews were being conducted a quarter-century ago. It's been changing ever since, with changes in the economy (How many people do their own milking anymore?), changes in lifestyles (Where are the children's street games of yesteryear?) and -- especially -- changes in education and mobility.

People go off to school, and they're exposed to other people with other ways of saying things. Upwardly mobile young people cast aside their parents' words and opt for more standard forms. And people moving from one part of the country to another are eager to fit in.

Meanwhile, in another part of the country, someone's sure to have come up with another way of saying something.

"TO ATTEMPT A WORK OF the scope of DARE," Frederic Cassidy declared in Volume I, "is to give hostages to imperfection." There are judgment calls every step of the way.

"The great problem with this business," says assistant editor George Goebel, "is we're looking for the kinds of words that don't get written down." But that's not the only problem.

The five years DARE had for fieldwork limited the number of interviews fieldworkers could conduct. Human endurance limited the number of questions they could ask.

The questions depended somewhat on prior knowledge. Unless you already know that there's a game where one child throws a ball over a roof to another child, you can't ask what it's called. ("Andy-over," "Anti-over," "Anthony-over" . . . )

There were hobbyhorses. Mr. Cassidy loves marbles, so there were plenty of questions about marbles.

They didn't want "standard" terms, or "technical" terms, but those aren't always easy to define.

They wanted "folk" terms, but they didn't want "slang" -- and how do you tell them apart? "Slang is always somehow self-conscious," says Mr. Goebel. "The words that go in our dictionary," says assistant editor Ted Hill, trying the opposite tack, "are words that people never even notice that they use . . . solid, everyday, meat-and-potatoes -- not pesto."

Occasionally, Len Zwilling says, the decisions are easy -- material "leaps out at you and says: 'I am a regional word or phrase.' " Often, though, "You have to accept that you're making guesses." In which case, there's more debate and more research, until the press of other words means you have to move on.

"You always feel," says Mr. Goebel, "if you had a little more evidence, you could really nail that one!"

It goes with the territory. "One of the things a lexicographer learns -- sometimes painfully," Frederic Cassidy has written, "is how and when to let go."


One critic claims DARE contains "nothing between the navel and the knees." DARE pleads guilty, more or less, with explanations.

"A lot of the things between the navel and the knees . . . are not regional," contends production editor Luanne von Schneidemesser. "They're more or less standard, and we don't put in standard words, so why should we? We also don't put in a lot of slang. We're not going out of our way to omit them."

There's also, Mr. Zwilling says, the problem of research. "You go into some community and say, 'What do you call that?' . . . They may find you floating face-down in a creek."

There was one question that did ask for "other words used around here for a woman's breasts," but the U.S. Office of Education wanted it removed. The compromise: DARE asked the question, but had to block out the "likely responses" often pre-printed on the questionnaire for the fieldworker's convenience.

There are, in fact, plenty of colorful terms scattered throughout the dictionary, plus racial and ethnic terms in considerable array. Mr. Cassidy defends their inclusion.

"People say, 'You shouldn't print that word, because it's a slur on us, it hurts us.' . . . We're not recording it to condemn. We're recording it because it's a reality, and our job as scientists is to record reality as accurately as we can."

Up on the sixth floor of Helen White Hall, meanwhile, reality is letters I through M, and the remainder of the alphabet stretching out beyond that. Not to mention a "Second Edition File" for the letters already completed; it awaits their next journey through the alphabet, somewhere deep in the 21st century.

"SOME OF US LIKE DETAIL," says Joan Hall, "and like to investigate things slowly and carefully and thoroughly. This is great for us."

Not so great, perhaps, for others -- funders, for instance -- grumbling about all the time it takes. George Goebel is sympathetic, but "you still have to spread those slips out on your desk, and just put your head in your hands and think."

So: Pretty dull stuff? It depends on your point of view.

"You can go for weeks," says Len Zwilling, "when it's dreary, it's like going through the desert. . . . The J's were really arid -- 25 senses of jack. Who cares?"

But then . . .

"Then," he continues, "you'll turn up stuff which will just really be interesting," a word for a particular type of dance, for instance, which hadn't been seen in print since the 1650s. "And here was evidence that this was still being used in some godforsaken corner of the Pennsylvania backwoods. . . . A coup! I found it! You all thought it was dead!"

"THERE IS A SACRED AMBI- tion in the spirit of Learning that will not let a man rest without new conquer'd and enlarg'd dominions."

The slip of paper hangs just above the light switch in Frederic Cassidy's office. At 83, he shows no signs of resting. He may have handed off most of the day-to-day administrative duties to Joan Hall, but he's still hard at work, looking for DARE words in new books, researching "ker" -- as in "kerchunk," "kerplop" -- spending his weekends learning to use a computer.

Plus "other things that strike my fancy."

He's still betting on words -- betting there's an audience for his dictionary, and betting he can steer the project to completion.

"I'm extremely fortunate -- I have very good health," says Mr. Cassidy, who takes three pills a day ("one to prevent palpitations, one to prevent clotting, and one aspirin"), exercises morning and evening, and takes "a fortnight" off each year for hiking and such. "I don't see why I shouldn't live to 100."

"It takes us about, let's say, three years for a volume," he says a moment later. "If you counted a dozen years, that would take us into the early part of the next century and we'd have the whole thing done."

("Three years for a volume" -- everyone else at DARE says five to six years per volume. Perhaps it's the only way this master of words can make the essential numbers come out right.)

Is it a race against time? "Oh, I should say, yes," Mr. Cassidy replies, calmly. "Why not?" But is it a race he can win?

"I think it's possible that he could live to see it," says one DARE staffer. "I really do. This is it, this is his baby. That's a powerful motivation. But he knows you can't rush this kind of thing."

Frederic Cassidy may be a prisoner of his own success -- in designing the project, in tapping the incredible vitality of the American language, in the oceans of data he's collected. He wouldn't have it any other way.

"Once you plunge into a thing like this, you're in it," he says, "and you can't let it go if you want to do a good job. . . . There'll be nothing like this possible again, because time keeps on changing, and the language keeps on changing.

RICK HOROWITZ'S last story for the magazine was on historical anniversaries.


THE DICTIONARY OF American Regional English is looking for a few good words.

With all the data they've collected over the years, sometimes the people at DARE still don't know enough about a particular word or phrase -- where it came from, what it means, who uses it and when. Maybe you can help.

The following all have appeared on DARE's "most wanted" lists in newsletters of the American Dialect Society. See any you recognize? Know anything about them? Send your information to: DARE, 6125 Helen White Hall, 600 N. Park St., Madison, Wis. 53706.

*FROG IN THE POT: "There's a frog in the pot" -- this one seems to be said when a pot is slow to boil. But DARE has only one quote for it: Delaware in 1982. More information?

*LEADMAN: A children's game. DARE has two quotes for it -- 1901 from central New York and 1950 from Illinois -- but no description of how it's played. And how is "lead" pronounced?

*HUSH THE LILAC: Another children's game -- similar, DARE believes, to "run-sheep-run." But DARE has only one report, from Wisconsin around 1960. And, DARE wonders, what could "lilac" mean?

*MULE: "He just muled right down." To become quiet, especially when threatened. DARE's got one example, from Kentucky in 1962. Is the verb used elsewhere? Is it used in any other way?

*FRECKLE: A disapproving term apparently used by Oklahoma Indians for an Indian who takes on "white" ways. DARE's source -- a good one, they say -- is a white Southwesterner. But it's looking for confirmation.

*MILK BROTHER: A male child whose mother has no milk and is breast-fed by another child's mother. DARE found the term in Appalachia; it wants more evidence. And is the term still being used?

*HEEL: The end slice of a loaf of bread. Or do you call it a "nibby"? DARE is running a mini-census on this one.

*HOOFTIE: A newspaper article from the Pittsburgh area said that police were having trouble with "hoofties" -- young people camping and living unconventionally. Any more details? And is the term used elsewhere?

*HUTCHERLY: A 1949 reference describes "hutcherly" in South Carolina as "a baked, spiced clingstone peach split several ways while still attached to the stone." DARE wants further evidence, and wonders whether the name might be Swiss.

*HOT BALL: Still another game -- DARE's found it in Texas and Arkansas. Does anybody know the rules? Any other locations? Any other information?

*GOD-SHOP: A church. James Baldwin used it on television in 1965 -- did he make it up, or was it a term already in use? By whom? Where? Is it ever so slightly derogatory?

*INDIAN'S NERVE: The funny bone. DARE has one report from a "middle-aged white informant from a small city in Georgia." Confirmation, please?


WITH ALL THE THOUSANDS of words the Dictionary of American Regional English staffers have hunted down over the years, some stand out. Ask Joan Hall:

"I guess my favorite was bobbasheely. We had a question in the questionnaire about terms you use if two people are really good friends, and we'd get things like 'two peas in a pod,' that kind of thing. And we got a couple of responses with 'bobbasheely.' One was -- we interpreted it as -- they're big Bobby Sheelies -- B-o-b-b-y S-h-e-e-l-i-e-s. . . . That's the way the fieldworker wrote it down.

"And it sounded kind of Irish, this Sheelies' business. We had absolutely no idea of what it meant, but we had at least two informants, maybe others, and a couple of written citations -- a Faulkner quote from "The Reivers," although Faulkner, now, he used it as a verb: 'Let's bobbasheely on down to the hotel.' And it just had a wonderful ring to it, and we had to find out what it was.

"I looked and looked and finally found in an old [American Dialect Society publication] Dialect Notes glossary a similar form, with a notation that it was probably Choctaw. So I got a Choctaw dictionary, and just plugged through it and found the form 'itibapishili'. . . which means my brother with whom I was %J suckled' -- so it's twins, or someone with whom you shared things very closely. And that was the form for the bobbasheelies.

"Wow -- this is great! These Texans don't know what they're saying, but . . ."

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